When did buying a light bulb become so complicated? What used to be a seemingly simple activity is now intertwined with considerations about energy, price, and technology. This has me thinking about light sources in a way I never imagined. But what's so surprising about that, you might ask? (I am, after all, the editor of ARCHITECTURAL LIGHTING.) The truth is that I, like all of the other consumers who make purchases in their daily lives, have taken light bulbs for granted—and, by that, I mean Thomas Edison's incandescent. This object, a fragile filament encased in a thin shroud of glass with a not-too-complex socket, has become so ubiquitous, it has assumed the cultural iconography of representing an idea. (In an interesting play on symbols, The New York Times' Green Inc. blog that covers energy and environmental issues uses a CFL bulb in place of an incandescent. I wonder: Will the image of a diode ever reach this level of symbolism?)
But back to light bulbs. They have become so common that we reach for them off hardware-store shelves as though we were buying a box of tissues. We've constructed our living environments and made our fixture selections all based on this type of light source and its warm color temperature characteristics. We have grown accustomed to this physiology of light. As we begin to incorporate other types of sources, such as CFLs or LEDs, into our homes, we are reminded of how we have been sensitized to incandescents.
What's interesting is how these quality-of-light issues have revealed our tolerance thresholds for where we will, and will not, use a certain type of light source. Outdoor areas, kitchens, laundry rooms—these are all spaces in which people are willing to use non-incandescent lamps. Living rooms and bedrooms—that's a whole other ballgame, where there isn't a CFL in sight. In public spaces, or our working and learning environments, we have no problem using the latest lamp technologies; when it comes to our homes, we are creatures of habit.
So what has sparked my fascination (dare I say obsession?) with lamps, and has me thinking about sources in terms of the trade-off between quality of light, energy savings, and how I will dispose of them at their end of life? Granted, I realize I am not the average customer, but I do have a mental checklist for purchasing a light source and, still, I am overwhelmed by the process. So, imagine how the typical consumer must feel.
The point was made real this past summer when I found myself standing in the lighting aisle of one of those big-box home improvement stores. I was searching for a specific light bulb for a new lamp I had purchased, only to be forced to admit that I had become a victim of my own design taste and failed as a consumer when I did not check to see what kind of lamp the fixture required before I purchased it. Now I was on a wild goose chase to find a T10 lamp, and all I saw before me were CFL multipacks. Next to me was a woman who was searching for a replacement light bulb she needed for her combination light fixture-ceiling fan. Both of us would have to go to a specialty lighting store.
The act of buying a light bulb—and, for that matter, selecting a fixture—now carries with it more significance than ever before. This choice impacts larger issues of production, consumption, and energy use. This choice also will take on added significance in the United States in July 2012, when we are all in for a major change. At that time, as mandated in the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act, general service incandescent sources will no longer be available for sale. Europe is slightly ahead of us on this activity, and their incandescent phase-out (ban is such an ugly word) began July 1, 2009.
Consumers are being fed a steady diet of CFLs and LEDs, and the same push is occurring at the professional level. As we prepared this annual product issue it was clear that the paradigm shift in lighting—from incandescent to a combination of CFL and LED—has now taken hold. Even though manufacturers have new energy-efficient lamp-and-ballast options for other sources, they are most interested in promoting their LED luminaires. I never thought it would be such a challenge to assemble the Lamps/ Ballasts/Controls section of this guide.
But what is of greatest concern to me is that this switch in lighting sources can be simplified to an either-or proposition. It should be a far more nuanced process, as surely the plethora of existing luminaire and lamp options prove. And there are existing sources that achieve the balance between energy-efficiency and quality of light at a reasonable price point. For instance, a halogen light bulb seemed the appropriate incremental step for me to use in a different fixture I have in my living room.
Yes, changes in light sources are not only coming, they are already here. The challenge going forward will be how to make sure we incorporate these new technologies and push them to be the best they can be. But we also need to not loose sight of what improvements we can make to existing technologies. We can make the choice less daunting if we stay informed.
How many people does it take to change a light bulb? The entire lighting industry.